Fountain Hills physician turns chemotherapy into healing music - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Fountain Hills physician turns chemotherapy into healing music

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Posted: Thursday, December 2, 2004 6:11 am | Updated: 5:28 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

December 2, 2004

Tom Moss came across the title for his only musical CD incidentally.

"At my first performance I said, ‘Thank you. Glad to be here.’ And I thought ‘No kidding!’ in my head."

Not quite two years ago, the life expectancy of the Fountain Hills family practitioner and amateur musician was iffy. Soon after testing positive for valley fever, Moss received a second somber diagnosis: Aggressive acute myelogenous leukemia, a life-threatening illness that mass-produces bad blood cells.

Doctors gave him a 40 percent to 45 percent chance of surviving the doublebarreled blast.

"I didn’t totally believe I was going to die, but I was worried. Had some close calls," said Moss, now 49 and in remission. For six months, life for Moss rotated in and out of a hospital bed while he underwent chemotherapy. Shiny bald from hair loss, bony from a 50-pound weight loss and too ill to walk, Moss, in his misery, reached out — to his guitar.

"There were times he was so sick he couldn’t play. But he could see it," said his wife, Jude. "It’s been kind of a buddy. He has taken his guitar all over the world with him."

A strummer since his youth, Moss often spent his nondoctoring hours playing and performing bluegrass variations with other part-time musicians. For Moss, his guitar embodied good times, friendship and the music that held his heart. Knowing the treatments ahead of him would be harsh, he wanted many positives near, including his guitar and the favorite poems of his youth, such as "Casey at the Bat" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

"I literally wasn’t sure I was going to live, and I didn’t want to go out watching game shows," he said.

It was while seeking comfort from those literary cadences and music that Moss did something for himself that was never an option for him as a physician: He turned two debilitating diseases into toetapping music.

"I thought about calling it ‘Leukemia: The Musical,’ " he said of the recently released CD, whose 12 songs chronicle his journey to health. Some are somber, such as "Tunnel Vision," a song about a neardeath experience during a 107.4-degree delirium. Most, though, take a breezy look at a miserable process, such as "Chemo Blues," "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow" and "Gilbert," a children’s song dedicated to his IV pole that he named Gilbert for no particular reason.

"I started writing poems about it. And I said, ‘Well, why not make them funny?’ I don’t want to downplay the seriousness and the struggle that it is by making it seem like it was humorous, because it wasn’t," he said. "But humor can get you through a lot of things."

What Moss had to get through was a chemotherapy kick-start that medical staff at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital remembered even two years later as being "pretty heavy duty." Chemo in the morning. Amphotericin, a drastic treatment for valley fever, at night. To handle its side effects, Moss received six medications beforehand, followed by a seventh afterward that, if administered at the right moment, alleviated the body-wracking shakes so violent the bed jumped.

Mary Pawlos, one of Moss’ nurses, said patients as sick as Moss are usually incapacitated to the point that they don’t even want to watch television or talk on the phone.

"And for him to lay there and be creative and write stuff, it was really rare," she said.

Lana Kerr, a nurse on the oncology ward, said patients in nearby rooms, among the first to hear Moss’ songs, were stunned to learn it was a fellow patient behind the music.

"We would all go in there and listen to him," she said. "I think that cheered him up to share with us, and it definitely cheered us up. It kept him positive. Even in those moments when he felt so terrible."

Moss’ singing voice, an avuncular but less-thanmelodious Burl Ives, won’t win him any awards — a critique agreed upon by friends, doting peers and patients as well as Moss himself. But it was never about that. Nurses, friends and other physicians urged him to record a CD of his songs. He and his wife opted to do just that when, after he started playing for other cancer patients, they noticed a reaction to his music: Sick people were laughing.

Once, after he played an early rendition of "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow," a woman told him she had been taking her own hair loss "way too seriously."

"And I don’t know if all of them will make it or not," Moss said, adding that when she said that to him, "I went: ‘Who knows what that will do for them, that attitude?’ "

He would later tell his wife it was the best hour of doctoring he had done.

Making a five-figure investment, the couple spent an average of two days a week for a year in a recording studio, with Jude occasionally singing back-up vocals for the CD, which ranges from cowboy ballads to the blues. Other musicians were brought in, multiple tracks put down — as many as 50 for a single song — on a project Moss wondered would ever get done.

"A lot of people have ideas to do stuff," he said, "but I really felt like I had to finish it."

And he did. The couple recently released 5,000 copies of "Glad to Be Here," and have sold hundreds — many from his Scottsdale practice where he has returned to work part time. Even now, his white blood cell counts are still low, so Moss sees only noninfectious patients while his partner tends to others.

Roger Essenberg, a skin cancer survivor and patient of Moss’, bought the CD

not knowing what to expect.

"To me, it’s a work of passion and healing," said Essenberg, a Fountain Hills resident. "Everything that he went through has got to be a fantastic inspiration for those people who are going through it."

Jude Moss agreed. Her husband, she said, chose to use humor "even when he was miserable."

Order a CD

The CD "Glad to Be Here" by Dr. Tom Moss may be ordered at,

where he also has posted insight into each song’s background.

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